On their 12th full-length album, the Swedish metal institution have never sounded more comfortable with their full-on prog transition, which works both for and against them.
Around the time when Opeth were recording their second album Morningrise, they formed Steel, a tribute to the ’80s speed metal they grew up with. They only released one EP, Heavy Metal Machine, and its cheekiness and obvious nostalgic air (that stuff was already ancient in 1996!) did not obscure the fact that Mikael Åkerfeldt is a legit shredder. Dan Swanö, Opeth’s producer at the time and former mastermind of Edge of Sanity, sounded legit charming, like Brian Johnson trying his hand at AOR. Steel felt like dudes just kicking it, which is something you would never say about Opeth. Åkerfeldt has moved away from metal and fully embraced progressive rock with Opeth’s more recent albums, but their 12th full-length, Sorceress brings to mind Steel’s carefree attitude as much as Genesis and King Crimson. They’ve never sounded more comfortable with their full-on prog transition, which works both for and against them
Heritage signaled their shift into progressive rock five years ago, and 2014’s Pale Communion further solidified the transition, but Opeth is still largely thought of as a progressive metal band. Åkerfeldt's growls don’t appear here, and even though five years have gone by, it still takes some getting used to. It’s one of the challenges of considering modern-day Opeth: for all of their merits, the first time we heard “Demon of the Fall” (one of the few ’90s songs they still play live) is hard to block out. Sorceress’ strongest moments are when the metal creeps back in ever so slightly. Even with the death metal gone, they can’t put away their Deep Purple records. The title track begins with an electric piano boogie that gives way into a chugging rhythm. Chug? On an Opeth record? By restraining the crunch to give space for Åkerfeldt's vocals, it actually works. “Sorceress” acts as a nod to American progressive metal bands who took from Opeth’s more metal moments.
In the dueling organ and guitars of “Chrysalis,” you could be tricked into thinking they’re moving back towards metal for a minute. “Era” recalls Rush’s earlier hard rock days, with Åkerfeldt’s croon more soothing than Geddy Lee’s wail. While he’s no Neal Peart, Martin Axenrot’s business gives that song a metal life while not being explicitly such. Hell, acoustic intro “Persephone” wouldn’t be too out of place on an At the Gates record. Opeth need not cater to those who tuned out after Heritage; still, those glimpses of familiarity account for most of the record’s real highlights.
Opeth’s contrasts between death metal and clean refrains were a hallmark of their sound, but frankly, some of their transitions from death metal to clean refrains were clunky, to say the least. Their new direction has largely solved that issue in terms of inter-song dynamics, but, as with Heritage and Communion, they still struggle with maintaining momentum. Right after “Chrysalis,” “Sorceress 2” and “The Seventh Sojourn” bog the record down. Indulgence is not the crime; Sorceress proves Åkerfeldt has embraced control, and there’s nothing like the 20-minute “Black Rose Immortal” from Morningrise again. But “Sorceress 2” is a pointless acoustic interlude that doesn’t really serve as a continuation of “Sorceress.” It’s adrift, whereas “Sorceress” is assured and steady. “Sojourn” is the bigger offender, with its vaguely Middle Eastern percussion and acoustic guitars. If Opeth took pieces of “Sojourn” apart, they could make some really strong songs out of them—the drums would go great with the crunch of the title track, and the strings might not even so bad if there were some other active force competing against it.
Even more shameful is that they’re followed by “Strange Brew,” the most convincing argument for Opeth abandoning metal. “Sojourn” awkwardly attempted to go psychedelic; “Strange Brew” does it effortlessly. There’s enough guitar flash and bombast characteristic of modern prog bands, yet Åkerfeldt knows how to hold back, cutting in with his somber voice just as he and Fredrik Åkesson start to get hyperactive. The soft piano that leads it off syncs better with “Chrysalis”’ ending, so it’s clear those two tracks work together side by side—it’s as if they forgot to remove all the rough sketches in between. Opeth have gotten better at self-editing with Sorceress; still, their jammier tendencies fail them in the album’s lackadaisical middle, showing they may just be a little too cool. Giving Steel another go just might inspire them to find the right balance of looseness and rigor.